With its famous ‘rows’ and Jacobean half-timbered style architecture lining the main high street, the romantic city of Chester is considered by many as one of Europe’s most beautiful cities.
Initially founded as a Roman fort, Chester is now a thriving retail hub for the North West and it’s clear to see why so many people are drawn into the cobbled, chocolate-box streets. Lining the city’s walls is no end of quaint tea shops, restaurants and bars and with a character and deep, visible history most places would struggle to compete with, Chester is a prime place for successful businesses – as many jewellery retailers have discovered.
Walking up Foregate Street and onto Eastgate Street, the first thing you’ll notice is the sheer number of brightly lit jewellery windows punctuating every other shop front. There are no fewer than 20 jewellery businesses operating in extremely close proximity in the city centre. With such a glittering collection of jewellers, how does each one manage to shine against its competitors?
Rise and shine
A proactive approach and providing a personalised customer experience – that’s the strength of the three-year-old Mappin & Webb Chester store, according to boutique manager Gary Worley. “We do a lot with clients and talk to them regularly, we learn what they do and don’t like. My aim is to be the family jeweller,” he explains, adding: “Those are the things we encourage because that establishes us. We don’t advertise a lot. We keep our focus on giving the customer a differential, on giving a great experience. In the nicest possible way, we have old school values. I think it’s important. There’s a discreetness. It shouldn’t be showy; it’s not about pushing or being hard-sell.”
The branding side is going to be very important – we’ve seen two businesses survive very well on Pandora but there have been some casualties”
Others are able to capitalise on their access to exceptional gemstones and long-established heritage in the local area. Boodles, which has its roots in the North West, is based next to the five-star Grosvenor Hotel, which naturally attracts Chester’s wealthiest tourists and local weekenders. The store’s impressively large window display features coloured diamonds that many jewellers would be unable to offer. Andrew Musgrave, assistant manager, notes how Boodles’ recent partnership as a select atelier for the Argyle diamond mine, which produces 80% of the world’s pink diamonds, has allowed the firm an unrivalled access to the coloured stones, which Musgrave says are continuning to become ever more popular with customers.
Just as all jewellers strive to become the family jeweller, Musgrave points out: “One of the key strengths that we have is that Boodles is very iconic in the North West. A lot of people aspire to have a Boodles engagement ring. There’re so many families that we deal with where the parents or grandparents have shopped with us and the next generation want to carry on the tradition of having a Boodles engagement ring.”
Whereas smaller firms may not have the level of access to pieces larger jewellers can boast, their long-established presence in the city can be a trump card. Waltons of Chester and Rigby Jewellers are two of the city’s longest serving jewellers and are as much a part of the urban fabric as its historic walls and rows. Richard Hogben, director of Waltons, which has been operating in the city since 1909, says the jewellers is lucky because of the regular, loyal clientele it attracts. As a small business, Hogben keeps costs very tight, but Waltons is by no means a stand-alone independent. He outlines that being a member of Houlden means the store can “buy exceptional terms and deal with suppliers” that would be difficult to achieve otherwise. He adds: “It’s the networking side of the group that does very well for us, we tend to be very much on the pulse of what’s going on in the trade and we can react very quickly because of our size.”
Rigby Jewellers on the other hand, based just off the main high street, has found itself a niche within the crowded jewellery scene. Jason Rigby, who runs the business with his father, John Rigby, explains: “Our bread and butter customer generally is £200 to £500 spend. That’s where we fit within the Chester jewellery scene. We’re not looking at four or five figures, there’re many others targeting that market. That isn’t the best pond to fish in for us. I’m looking at a return on investment and it’s no good for me having thousands of pounds tied up in diamond rings if I’m just sitting looking at them. Being realistic, we have to look at the numbers and play to our strengths, and that just happens to be the £200 to £500 mark.”
Finding a niche seems to be key to so many jewellers trading successfully side-by-side. Mococo, another jewellery retailer on Foregate Street – the main jewellery highway – manages to thrive on the back of offering fashion jewellery and exclusive brands. The site is well placed for selling fashion jewellery too. Situated next to River Island, Marks & Spencer and other large clothes retailers, most of Mococo’s trade comes from people looking to style an outfit with fashion jewellery. On top of this, Becky Astle, marketing and social media coordinator for the company, explains how being an exclusive stockist for the ChloBo brand draws in significant custom.
“The majority of our customers can’t usually try ChloBo on because there’s not an outlet – we are the outlet. That is our saving grace and we’ve got a couple of other brands that none of the other shops stock, which makes it a lot easier for us. That’s mainly how we draw people in,” Astle says.
Chester’s Achilles’ heal
It seems that as long as each jeweller in Chester can offer something slightly different then they can all trade happily alongside one another. However, in such a fiercely competitive environment, casualties are inevitable. David M Robinson is the most recent jeweller to announce its departure from the city and two years ago, family run business, Pykes Jewellers, closed its doors 135 years after being founded. Although competition from an intensely populated jewellery scene is likely to have been a contributing factor to some closures, Chester faces other, more local-specific challenges.
Declared as “Chester’s Achilles’ heal” by Rigby, parking is a significant problem for many businesses in the city. “Everybody you talk to business wise, customer wise, the same conversation crops up time and again. Parking is a problem and there’s Cheshire Oaks which is five miles down the road, there’s Trafford Centre and then there’s Broughton Retail Park. Consequently Chester has slipped down the retail rankings hugely,” Rigby comments. Similarly, Hogben says he is continually bombarded with people saying they go to the Cheshire Oaks retail park because of the parking and the access.
But parking and access is not considered to be a major problem by some others in the city. Astle from Mococo insists that the council’s park and ride scheme bolsters business, with people being drawn in on Saturdays to shop for fashion items. Likewise, Worley from Mappin & Webb, an appointment-only destination store for customers, admits that although he understands the concerns of others, the site doesn’t have much of a problem with access. Boodles is another store which says being a destination shop means it has a greater immunity to the parking plight, where people will make the journey for their high-end luxury items. Other jewellers are even able to capitalise on the parking structure of the city.
Chisholm Hunter’s Chester branch is situated in a prime location in the Grosvenor shopping precinct at the foot of the multi-story car park’s lift. Harry Brown, director of Chisholm Hunter, comments: “When you come down the lift, the first shop you come to is ours and I think that brings in a few customers.” In addition to this, Richard Cope, deputy manager of the store, mentions that the footfall in the precinct is consistently strong all year round and passersby are drawn in by the window display’s jewellery and watch brands.
Despite the conflicting views on parking, Chester is by no means immune to the consumer drain that out-of-town shopping centres can bring. Liverpool One, Cheshire Oaks, Trafford Centre and Broughton Park all present city jewellers with an extra challenge. But most believe that Chester’s character is enough to draw in people looking for special jewellery items. Brown, believes that Chester’s “ambience” actually pulls people in from neighbouring Liverpool and Manchester. And the city’s opportunities don’t stop there.
The ‘original city of love’
love’ ahead of Paris and Venice, due to the vast amount of romantic relics uncovered, including Roman wedding rings and one of the oldest depictions of a husband and wife ever discovered in the UK, Chester is a prime location for couples seeking bridal wear. Worley observes how there is a shift in the way consumers shop, with couples more likely to come in together to look for an engagement ring then a man searching solo. In another trend, Hogben remarks: “I think diamond and traditional bridal jewellery is very strong but also coloured stones. Sapphires are strong, we’ve seen a growth in that area and we’re starting to move more products in that direction. We’ve found younger couples, for example, have been buying sapphire and diamond engagement rings that maybe they haven’t done for 10 or 15 years.”
When People want to look at engagement rings and make it a special weekend, where do they go? You come to Chester”
Most of the retailers Professional Jeweller spoke to agreed that the vast choice of jewellers businesses in the city is a draw for couples seeking bridal jewellery. Worley states how he welcomes all competition for wedding jewellery as a vital part to business. He says: “People want to look at engagement rings and make it a special weekend, where do you go? You come to Chester. The reality, you can come to ourselves and you can go to other jewellers and I think that makes people think of it as somewhere special. The clock is quite a feature. Apparently, I am told by those who know, it was the fifth most visited place to propose to someone in England in the last ten years. It’s a spot on location.”
Just as jewellers are well placed in Chester to benefit from couples seeking bridal wear, the city is well placed for drawing in consumers from a sizeable catchment area. Although there is an archaic bylaw stating that Welsh people found within the city walls after midnight can be shot with a crossbow, North Wales presents jewellers with a huge amount of regular customers. Likewise, about 31 million tourists from all over the UK and further afield flock to the city each year to spend their cash.
Astle notes that being located next to a hotel has its trade benefits and Mappin & Webb, Waltons and Boodles on Eastgate Street all enjoy the clientele the Grosvenor Hotel brings in. Jason Rigby however, maintains that locals are his most valuable customers as tourists rarely purchase high-value goods in his store. He says: “All customers are important but we find that the ones that do better for us are the locals. Tourists bring the money into the city centre and we get it second hand.”
A sea change coming
Owing to the city’s opportunities, there is clearly still money to be made in spite of uncertain economic times, local issues for businesses and stiff competition. But what does the future hold for Chester’s jewellery scene? Rigby Jewellers sums up: “We’ve lost a few and gained a few – there’s quite a sea change coming. The branding side is going to be very important,” he predicts, concluding: “We’ve seen two businesses survive very well on Pandora and there have been some casualties, as we’ve seen in the precinct these last few weeks [with David M Robinson’s departure]. I’m sure that will continue to be the case. It’s about keeping an open mind and looking for opportunities wherever they may be.”
Chester is a shining example of how numerous multiples and independents can coexist. There appears to be enough customers for all as long as each jeweller achieves a niche and differentiates themselves from one another. If they fail to do that, then in an environment as competitive as Chester there are bound to be further casualties. For now though, a happy balance seems to be keeping businesses afloat. And considering Chester’s long, established history as a jewellery Mecca, that trend only looks to continue, as things stand.
What’s trending in Chester?
For Mappin & Webb, classic four and six claw rings with lower settings are the order of the day. As well as a rise in people looking for bridal rings that match, as store manager Worley identifies a return to single stone engagement rings. But he adds: “More people are wanting a simple engagement ring and then a diamond wedding ring. There’s a definite growth towards that.”
For Boodles, coloured diamonds continue to sparkle for the brand. A rising interest in pink, blue and yellow diamonds is being enjoyed by the luxury firm, as a result of the ongoing trend. It is also seeing a growing move towards long necklaces and pendants, although that may partly be dictated by Boodles itself, which designs its own fine jewellery collections.
Bridal and diamond pieces remain strong for Waltons, but a slow move back towards yellow gold is emerging, it says. Director Hogben adds: “I think people have now done the fashion side and feel they’d like to buy something a little bit more special with a little bit more longevity.”
Conversely, Mococo insists that fashion jewellery remains popular with Olivia Burton watches, Daisy London, ChloBo and Thomas Sabo all doing well.
Q&A: Harry Brown, Chisholm Hunter MD
How do you manage the large amount of competition?
There are a lot of jewellers here. I suppose that’s a challenge in one way but in another way, people know there’re a lot of jewellers and there’s a lot of choice so it actually brings a certain type of client. It’s a great location.
What’s your outlook on the challenges of Brexit?
We’ve all got to remain positive, we’ve obviously got Brexit hanging over us. The more I read the papers the more I think, I don’t think anyone really understands what actually it’s going to do to the country. We just have to remain positive, I think the jewellery industry is a resilient trade and we tend to be positive people and that’s all we can do.
What does Chisholm Hunter have in store for 2017?
We opened up a new store in Edinburgh in December so that’s a big move for us this year. In Manchester we’re acquiring the shop next door in the Spring, and actually, we’ve got a store in Warrington where we’re doing the same thing – we’re expanding our presence, and just investing in our people and in our stores.